Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

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9780805059854: Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship

The improbable story of the wildest idea-a space craft powered by hydrogen bombs-to come out of the space race.

It was the late 1950s. The Cold War was raging. Sputnik had made its voyage and the space race was on. In America, it was the age of tail fins and "duck and cover," but it was also a time of big ideas and dreams. On his way to school one day, George Dyson learned of a truly fantastical idea: massive space vehicles that would be powered by explosions of multiple hydrogen bombs. Among the brilliant minds behind this project was George's father, the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson.

Project Orion chronicles this fascinating episode in U.S. scientific research, while capturing a unique time in American history and culture. The project brought together a cadre of brilliant physicists, the first such assemblage since the Manhattan Project of fifteen years earlier. In an idyllic seaside community in southern California-the very picture of 1950s suburban prosperity-a handful of scientists, tackled a massive project that required the ingenuity of an engineer and the vision of a great theoretician. Their work-ambitious but ultimately futile-took place against the political and cultural backdrop of the Cold War, when nuclear technology spelled both promise and terror.

Dyson's prodigious historical and scientific research, combined with his personal reminiscences and connections, make for a lively, richly detailed narrative.

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Review:

Like cheap, shiny space suits and bug-eyed rubber monsters, nuclear-powered spaceships today seem like little more than laughably naïve 1950s science fiction tropes. It might have been otherwise--and still could be. George Dyson, son of supergenius physicist Freeman Dyson, wrote Project Orion to share some of his father's amazing research with the world. Much had been kept secret for years, but Dyson's unique insider status permits great depth and breadth on this important tale. Conceived in the wake of Sputnik, Project Orion was a true vision of '50s engineering: a huge 40-person ship powered by hundreds of tiny atomic bombs, capable of much greater lift and efficiency than chemically driven rockets. Struggles between NASA, the military, Congress, and other parties doomed Orion, but Dyson has gathered hundreds of documents and interviewed most of the researchers and engineers who worked together, trying to reach "Saturn by 1970." His knack for storytelling makes the book a quick, delightful read; even the staunchest anti-nuke activist has to admit that lighting a cigarette off a parabolic mirror facing a bomb test is pretty cool. By the end of the 20th century, technology had caught up with the vision of Orion--it's considered one of our best bets for long-distance space transit. Whether or not that could ever happen politically, Project Orion is a compelling exploration of scientific imagination. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

George Dyson, the son of distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson, grew up immersed in the world of groundbreaking science. His previous books include the acclaimed Darwin Among the Machines. He and his father are also the subjects of Kenneth Brower's dual biography, The Starship and the Canoe. Dyson lives in Washington State.

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George Dyson
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ISBN 10: 0805059857 ISBN 13: 9780805059854
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